ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena denied that the cabinet of ministers had decided not to accept cash deposits from nominees for the local government elections scheduled for March.
Responding to a question by opposition legislator Anura Kumara Dissanayake in parliament on Tuesday January 17, the prime minister said the cabinet had not taken a decision pertaining to election deposits.
“At every cabinet meeting, we discuss issues in the country. If somebody said that, it is an incorrect news,” said Gunawardena.
MP Dissanayake and opposition leader Sajith Premadasa had sought an explanation from the government about a controversial circular attributed to Public Administration Ministry Secretary Neil Hapuhinna ordering all District Secretaries who function as Returning Officers not to accept deposits.
The circular was withdrawn by the ministry secretary hours later, after it drew the condemnation of opposition political parties who claimed it was an illegal order and an underhand tactic to delay the polls. Opposition parties claimed that the circular had been issued following a decision reached at last week’s cabinet meeting. According to MP Dissanayake, the secretary to the cabinet of ministers had conveyed the decision to Hapuhinna, directing him to issue the directive to the district secretaries.
The National Election Commission, an independent body with the sole authority to conduct elections and issue directives to returning officers, summoned the ministry secretary for an explanation of his actions, prompting the latter to issue an apology.
Responding to the allegations, Prime Minister Gunawardena said the cabinet had taken no such decision and had not decided to delay the local government election.
Demanding an explanation for the official’s action, Opposition Leader Premadasa asked the government in parliament on Tuesday what action it planned to take against the official if he was acting of his own volition as claimed.
“Mr Hapuhinna sent this letter as a decision taken by the cabinet. It wasn’t a personal decision of his. We want a straight answer to this: Did the cabinet take such a decision?” asked Premadasa.
“I have already answered this question. They’re asking the same question again. The opposition leader does not listen,” responded Gunawardena.
MP Dissanayake said: “The secretary to the cabinet of ministers is who conveys cabinet decisions to relevant ministry secretaries. It’s his certificate that officially becomes a cabinet decision.”
“If the cabinet secretary is sending out decisions that were never made by the cabinet, what is happening in this country? This is a serious matter. What if sends some other letter tomorrow?”
The MP, who leads the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)-led National People’s Alliance, charged that President Ranil Wickremesinghe and United National Party (UNP) MP Vajira Abeywardena had ordered the cabinet secretary to issue the directive.
“The government is not within the cabinet; it is with [President] Wickremesinghe and Vajira Abeywardena,” said Dissanayake.
Premadasa asked if there is a super-cabinet that functions above the ordinary cabinet.
“This was a decision that was put together in secret. Hapuhinna was compelled to send it to the returning officers because it was deemed a cabinet decision. This is a frightening situation,” said Premadasa.
A heated exchange also erupted between opposition leader and prime minister, with the former calling a latter a “peon” or office assistant.
Prime Minister Gunawardena retorted that it was in fact Premadasa’s father, former President Ranasinghe Premadasa who during his tenure as prime minister under President J R Jayawardena, had famously referred to himself as a peon.
Responding to further questions, Gunawardene said that government officials have the right to recall erroneously issued directives as was the case with the public administration ministry secretary.
“The cabinet paper that Mr Dissanayake is talking about was not there. In the event of an error, the ministry secretary can issue a correction. That’s why Secretary Hapuhinna issued an immediate correction that same evening,” he said.
“If the opposition leader proposes that the public administration ministry secretary is removed, it cannot be done based on incorrect information,” he added.
With President Wickremesinghe who was in parliament on Tuesday right next to hm, Gunawardena also responded to the allegation that the real cabinet was the president and his party.
“You said the man on top or the second in command is doing everything. The country shouldn’t be run by you who is at a lower level. The country rejected you,” he said. (Colombo/Jan17/2023)